Stephen M. Walt

A realistic approach to China

Thomas Wright has an interesting op-ed in the Financial Times today, laying out a new strategy for dealing with China. He argues that the Obama administration initially adopted much the same approach as the earlier Clinton administration, in effect seeking to integrate China as a "responsible stakeholder" in the existing set of made-in-America international institutions. ...

FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

Thomas Wright has an interesting op-ed in the Financial Times today, laying out a new strategy for dealing with China. He argues that the Obama administration initially adopted much the same approach as the earlier Clinton administration, in effect seeking to integrate China as a "responsible stakeholder" in the existing set of made-in-America international institutions. That effort failed (as realists anticipated that it would), and Wright now recommends a new approach.  Money quotation (my emphasis):

[The United States] now needs a new strategy of preservation to ensure the current international order can withstand external pressures and function effectively, even if a major power, such as China, decides to undermine it. To do this, the US needs to build new geopolitical partnerships and alliances; Indonesia and India are good candidates. It must seek European support for core principles of openness, including freedom of the seas, space and cyberspace, to be upheld even if China and others encroach upon them. It should give more influence to nations willing to take on greater responsibilities in tackling shared problems — including South Korea, and on certain issues Vietnam and Turkey — and pressure those who do not."

This is, of course, a realist approach to the preservation of world order. It rests upon the formation of countervailing alliances, based on the recognition that effective international institutions inevitably reflect the underlying distribution of power. If the United States fails to maintain an imbalance of power in its favor (based on both its own capabilities and those of its allies), its ability to preserve the current institutional structure of world politics will gradually evaporate. I think Wright overstates Europe’s importance when it comes to dealing with China, but his observations about India and Indonesia are on the money.

It also follows that the more money, men, and political capital the United States expends in places like Afghanistan, the fewer resources it will have available to deal with more serious long-term challenges. And as both Glenn Greenwald and Paul Krugman recently observed, the fewer resources we will be able to devote to maintaining the foundations of national power and our overall quality of life here at home.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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